DURHAM – Duke is back in the top 10.
All but written off as title contenders after an early January slump, the eighth-ranked Blue Devils (19-5, 8-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) enter their heated rivalry later this week with North Carolina on quite a roll.
Their only loss in the past month came in overtime at No. 1 Syracuse.
They’re in the top 10 for the first time since December and finally are playing like the team anointed as the preseason favorite in the new-look ACC.
“I think our team is the best it has been right now,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And I think we’re very good. But ... we can lose really easier than last year’s team.”
They proved that a few times earlier this season, and that led to questions about whether this Duke team was overrated.
But since hitting rock bottom in a 72-59 loss at Clemson on Jan. 11, the Blue Devils have shown a renewed commitment to defense and it’s paid off at the other end of the court.
“We realize that playing defense and locking in on the defensive end is the way we’re going to win,” senior captain Tyler Thornton said. “Early in the season, we relied a lot on our offense and trying to outscore people, but we weren’t playing defense and using our athleticism and our speed and our quickness to our best abilities.”
In each of their seven wins since then, they haven’t allowed more than 68 points. Each of the five teams that beat Duke so far scored at least 72.
And they’ve forced at least 10 steals three times in the last month after doing it only twice in their first 16 games.
“I definitely think we’ve been playing with an edge, just because we’ve taken some tough losses,” forward Amile Jefferson said. “We think about our past games, our past losses, it puts a fire in us. ... Right now, we’re just playing with a fire and a fight.”
Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils “have had a lot of growing up to do because our two most talented players had never been through this before,” referring to Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood and freshman Jabari Parker.
Parker has come on strong lately, scoring at least 20 points in three of his last four games, and is averaging a team-best 19.2 points.
That’s a significant step forward for the phenom, who found himself benched for the final 4½ minutes of a loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 4.
A week later, Duke shot 25 percent in the second half against Clemson and was outrebounded 48-30. After that game, the Blue Devils sank to No. 23 in the AP Top 25 – their lowest ranking since they dropped entirely out of the poll in February 2007.
“We were down at the bottom, about to be kicked out of the Top 25, and our noses were rubbed in the dirt a little bit,” Hood said.
After the Blue Devils sweated out a 69-65 home victory against Virginia, Krzyzewski vowed to “do a better job” and said, “we’re all in today.”
They have been tough to beat ever since.
Their six wins since then have come by an average of 22 points, and the one loss in that stretch – a 91-89 defeat in overtime against Syracuse before more than 35,000 people in the Carrier Dome – came in one of the more memorable games of the year.
They might have turned their season back around, but they insist they haven’t proven anything yet and vow to attack the rest of the schedule with the same mentality they’ve taken during the past month.
“We’re still not out of it,” Hood said. “We’ve still got the same mindset.”